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US wine store sues over alleged design steal

In what will be a landmark ruling a New York wine store is suing another store for copying its design.

Best Cellars uses an innovative method of classifying all wines into eight styles – fizzy, fresh, juicy, sweet, luscious, and so on. The design of its five stores in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in Boston, Seattle (pictured) and Washington DC is highly distinctive, and has won a clutch of design awards since opening in 1996.

And it is this distinction – the store was designed by architect David Rockwell, and incorporates vibrant colours, back-lit single bottles placed at eye-level over vertical racks, and other unusual touches – which owners Joshua Wesson and Richard Marmet claim is being copied by franchise operation Bacchus.

The design of the Bacchus stores is so similar that Wesson and Marmet say it could not possibly be accidental. The owners of Bacchus, which started in California and has four stores across the US, maintain they have never heard of Best Cellars. They also allegedly claim the idea of selling wine by style came from Decanter writer Fiona Beckett’s seminal book Wine by Style.

‘You can’t copyright a business idea but if you have a distinctive design it is protectable,’ Richard Marmet told decanter.com. Bacchus was sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter but carried on trading, with the result that lawyers have been briefed. ‘We are involved in litigation at the moment,’ Marmet said.

In 1998 Marmet and Wesson successfully sued another store, Grape Finds in Washington DC. ‘It looked exactly like ours,’ Marmet said, and added that there were several other stores in the US that used the ‘wine by style’ concept to sell wine, but they would not be taking any action because the design was different.

Fiona Beckett said she was flattered that someone should claim to have based an entire retail concept on her book, ‘but it sounds unlikely.’ She also said she would need to get in touch with her publishers if it turned out to be true.

The case is expected to be heard in September.

Written by Adam Lechmere15 July 2002

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